Counter-memory is a practice that questions traditions of memory and attends to voids and gaps in narratives ¹. If memory is a construction, counter-memory is an alternative political construction, a montage of facts, objects, dreams, expectations, shadows and spectres.
— Lisa Baraitser Enduring Time ²
While we as an archive and society adjust to the imperativeness of social distancing and the existentialism of the home as confinement, I have shifted from preservation engineering and being alongside magnetic tape at the National Library of Scotland to the comforts, quandaries and cells of cataloguing long strips of VHS audio (6-8 hours per tape). In the intervening period our relationship with physical and digital material will manifest altered meanings and relevancies while our senses run amok across truncated domestic spaces. A poetics will emerge across a plurality of emotional terrains marked by immense hardships and transformative realisations, and for many of us, the hope of a less selfish and petty future. We have entered into a space Baraitsir poignantly mapped in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic in her seminal book Enduring Time, through her reflections on an elongated present and as the poet Denise Riley ³ relates, as living in a “great circle without a rim” rather than a linear entity hurtling forward.
Surrounded in this circle with a vague horizon, I’ll be ruminating on my dormant work with archival magnetic tape and connecting it to a separate but related interest in a weekly column on forthcoming, recent and not so recent cassette releases. I intend to heed the contemporary, but the circle requires drawing from the past to inform the present; if this is the archivist in me quivering in the corner, please shrug it off.
Through Unlocking Our Sound Heritage my team’s work predominantly focuses on the preservation and eventual online access of unpublished sound carriers. In the meantime, without proximity to collection material, this weekly write-up will grow out of another type of unlocking – in the company of a shrunken and often eccentric community of reclusive, but occasionally social musicians (i.e. utilising the cassette as a social carrier), lo-fi recordists, printmakers, collage and postal artists, tape-heads and outsiders enamoured by the intimate materiality of the cassette and its connective and enticingly paradoxical qualities.
The outsider cassette scene – although the format was invented in 1963 – burst-open in the late-1970s when experimental punk and electronic artists around the world blew the lid off of a conservative music industry clinging to the budding hegemony of neoliberalism. Throughout this column I will refrain from referring to the cassette community and its output through the media’s construction of a cassette revival – this lazy assessment sheds very little light on the music and its wider cultural, political and historical footings. Even when reviewing landmark tape releases (1977-1995), which continue to push the envelope, I will circumvent nostalgia, abstain from eclipsing the present through eulogising the past and avoid commemorating the retro. The onset of 1980s omni-capitalism, material superabundance, mass reproduction, environmental carelessness and its continuing spawn are ripely pertinent to this story, but not through the vestigial romanticism of re-inflating the aesthetics of the decade; rather these extremities and sociopolitical fissures impelled artists to burrow under the surface in dedication to art practices for smaller audiences (often only their immediate communities) and non-market purposes over the excessiveness of reaching people and capital as one and the same. Likewise, participation in the outsider cassette scene offers a praxis of counter-memory and counter-history ⁴. In this spirit, the column is concerned with the underground, its resilience and ongoingness, its pertinence today, its elasticity and noise within the walls of the current crisis and its dream of the collective over the individual, as the late Mark Fisher conceptualised in the posthumous manifesto Acid Communism ⁵. This column is about how people persist in the sharing of recorded material across alternate spaces, economies and power structures. Simply, it’s the cassette’s place across small-scale movements; from correspondence art to post-Fordist capitalist deconstructionism told through a different tape release each week.
¹ Ahıska, Meltem. “Occidentalism and Registers of Truth: The Politics of Archives in Turkey.” New Perspectives on Turkey, vol. 34, 2006, pp. 9–29.
² Baraitser, Lisa. Enduring Time. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
³ Riley, Denise. Time Lived, without its Flow. Capsule Editions, 2012.
⁴ Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Cornell University Press, 1977.
⁵ Fisher, Mark. “Acid Communism.” K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004 – 2016), Repeater, 2018, pp. 751–770.